Between Ships and Static
The audiovisual coordinates of electronic improviser Rick Reed
Beneath the Pleasant Valley Bridge, twilight hung back against a chorus of rising insect noise. Twenty of us gathered for a field recording workshop led by Lawrence English, a Brisbane artist and proprietor of the Room 40 label. As the group listened through their aural implants of microphones and headphone pre-amps, we fell into the drift of shared silence: the motion of the aqueduct, the texture of the wind through the grass, and the thumping overtones of vehicles passing overhead.
Everyone except Rick Reed, who instead disrupted the silence by rummaging across the terrain and transcending from a listener to the wildlife the rest of us were quietly capturing.
This approach to breaking through environment can also be found on Music for the Rothko Chapel, a 10-inch record wherein Reed imagines experiencing the Houston chapel dedicated to the work of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko with a soundtrack accompaniment when in actuality, listening to music there – even through headphones – isn't permitted. Although the piece touches upon the austere tone of the chapel's interior architecture, its spatial acoustics, and Rothko's looming canvases, the two sides are a passage into auditory elucidations extracted from a visual foreground.
Context for breaking through the mores of silence, which Reed demonstrated during our group sound walk and in drafting soundscapes for a space centered on visual-spiritual reflection and quietude, might seem abrasive, but Reed's exegesis of listening, immersion, and casting sound at an environment is Cagean: Silence as the absence of sound doesn't exist. Silence is attained through sensory attention to environment, even – as evinced by Reed and multidisciplinary sound/silence artist John Cage's own work – when tampered with.
Rick Reed's compositions aren't site specific. Rather, they construct landscapes.
"I establish an actual place," he says after a performance at the Museum of Human Achievement on April 26. "When I played the other night with [wife] Tara Bhattacharya, she mixed in recordings of birds, but they were used for coloration."
Color often refers to the tonal qualities of instrumentation, yet like many postmodern sound artists, Reed's application of color generates ocular settings out of hidden auditory elements. "I try to set up a series of tones in balance to satisfy something I crave visually," he explains, "but in actuality, they only exist sonically."
Since the late Seventies, Reed's occupied an instrumental role in Austin's experimental music community. At the Elevator Bath Night last month, he was introduced as the "grandfather of Austin's avant-garde." He took the stage while shaking off the accolade. "Please don't say that," he chuckled. He wasn't being modest or fretting that he's approaching 60. He understands he's a prime component of a complicated legacy in a city where experimental art and improvisation have been largely left out of the narrative.
Reed's jovial, humorous nature trickles into his compositions, but his personality largely lays in contrast to his work, which often transforms into formidable sheets of static and atmospheric interruptions reinterpreted via shortwave radios, VLF (very low frequency) transmissions, phonographic obscurations, modular synthesis, and improvisation.
"I'm a serial synthesist," he says. "I prefer to focus on a single synth at a time. It goes back to the improvisation days, where you have one instrument and you focus on it."
As disquieting as his audio collages come across, the coalescence of nontraditional instrumentation along with a singular style of electronic articulation cut across the menacing nature of the individual sounds. Austin/Mexico City-based percussionist and curator of the annual No Idea Fest, Chris Cogburn gleans a deep balance in Reed's personal and artistic selves:
"I've always thought of Rick Reed as embodying a kind of Texas nonchalance – going about your business, moving through the day-to-day as a mechanic, baker, or teacher does – complete and content in his unassumingness," writes Cogburn. "Though on the inside, Rick's been engaging his own personal set of philosophical, aesthetic, and artistic questions for decades. He's a working artist in the truest sense and his process yields incorruptible results.
"All you see and hear is the work – decades of work, decades of time spent doing the thing he believes in. There's no way to achieve what Rick has achieved other than doing it day in and day out."
In Reed's home, the art hanging on the walls (primarily his own) directly relates to his sound palette. Though the paintings look as if they're made with unusual materials, they're more crude than meets the eye, with layers of spray paint dripping down glossy paper. His visual work is vibrant, abstract, motioning; glacial, more minute than Rothko's imposing paintings and instead channeled through a notional Seventies utopia.
Reed didn't play in bands. From the get-go, he thought of himself as a visual artist.
Reed was born in Corpus Christi, 1957, where he was exposed to a variety of otherworldly audiovisual phenomenon.
"My earliest memories were down on the coast," he says. "My parents had this big shortwave radio. I had a tape player they gave me. I would always bust the tape and splice it back backwards. I have a real love of backwards tape sounds. Still to this day, I use a lot of backwards tape.
"I was imprinted at an early age."
His fascination with radio static courses through the majority of his music. In person, he's downright nostalgic about pre-Internet shortwave transmissions, and throughout our conversation he keeps looping back to his first memories.
"Everything is gone because of the Internet," he offers. "They don't communicate in that way anymore. Back then, you could pick up a lot of stuff from the coast, homing beacons for ships. Aside from weird oscillations, you don't hear secret broadcasts anymore."
A spectral, Gulf Coast quality translates in much of his work – alone at the edge of the sea with the presence of dense and hidden textures omnipresently lapping through the sky and under the waves, everything patiently coming to the surface. His series of "Cloud Study" videos speak to the patient surge in his work. The environments Reed creates aren't calm days at the beach, but rather uncoverings of thick coastal atmospheres and blankets of electricity charging the atmospheric transients set adrift. Static percolates around the edges of his compositions.
"I like the sounds in between the stations," he nods. "The static and the modulation frequencies. I love the sound of electricity. Maybe it's as simple as listening to ground transformers as a kid."
Although Reed utilizes shortwave radios and a variety of electronic tools in creating a fabric of disembodied streams, he also interprets the formative years of his compositions through found tapes from his childhood and specific organs.
"I recently ran across a tape I made at my parents house on a Baldwin Organ. It might be as early as 1978. I used it in a piece recently, and it's funny to bridge that gap. I had a conversation with [English tabletop guitarist and painter] Keith Rowe about an AMM show from 1965. I asked him, 'What does it feel like to hear yourself back then?' He said, 'It's amazing to hear how much I got right.'
"I feel that way about a lot of my old recordings. There is a lot that's right about them. It's either that I got it right or that I haven't learned a damn thing in all these years."
Reed's learned plenty in almost 40 years of living locally. He's experienced Austin flux in and out of pop music traditions, with the obscured passage of experimental music scraping under its tow. The Eighties were particularly bad.
"New Wave contributed to my discontent with it all," he acknowledges. "I realized that was not the way. Improvisation was the way."
No wonder Reed fashioned a longstanding collaborative relationship with Rowe, his work also resulting in improvised soundtracks for experimental filmmakers. His sensibility of Austin's legacy as a rock & roll town turned metropolis reveals as much about his dedication to nontraditional instrumentation as his fascination with radio and the tonality of electricity and synthesis.
"In the early days, punk was everywhere, but once you listen to the first few Kraftwerk records, how is punk rock radical? It sounded really conservative. Punk threw out all synthesizers. They were seen as hippie-like. Then [Austin's] Terminal Mind came around, led by my friend Steve Marsh. He had the first punk band in town that used synthesizers. I remember being really impressed by it."
Genius of Love
Although much of the Reagan era didn't impress Reed musically, across the pond a darker, more sparse style of electronics informed by the punk aesthetic began to take hold. Duet Emmo's "Long Sledge," from the 1983 Mute LP Or So It Seems, became one of Reed's earliest influences. Its menacing minimalism has stuck with him ever since. Take note that as a child, Reed tuned into radio waves filtering across the sea, and today a lot of music that inspired Reed originated across the ocean, primarily from the UK and Germany's Kosmische movement.
Even his sense of improvisation stems more from the European avant-garde than American jazz. His collaborations with Rowe come out of this context, especially Shifting Currents, a free-form double-disc. Reed's continental anchoring focuses through the visual arts. In addition to his own films, which often accompany him live, he's scored a number of Ken Jacobs' films. Their "Capitalism: Child Labor" won the grand prize at Portugal's 2007 Vila do Conde. Dark Skies at Noon, one of Reed's opuses, has been utilized by Jacobs across a range of live contexts.
Reed's collaborations, with the direction of Tara Bhattacharya Reed's Antumbrae Intermedia Events, have broadened the scope of local improvisation by showcasing international artists. Despite the city's repute as a global mecca, its experimental scene suffers from insularity. Now, two facets are currently prying open Austin's avant-garde: growth, which has brought a wider interest in the aforementioned areas in addition to new artists moving from larger cities, and secondly, live events fostered by the Reeds.
"There wasn't a lot of support for experimental music until about five years ago," says Rick. "I used to do a series called Intersect and then it morphed into Tonebursts. Back then, we used to think having six acts was a big deal. Now, I just played Noise Fest alongside 40 acts! It's only in the past few years that anyone has really gotten it.
"It's a testament to how diverse Austin has become or maybe it's just the Internet. And yet there are a lot of big-city disadvantages. I'm still waiting for the big-city advantages. There's no modern art museum. There's no mass transportation infrastructure."
The undeveloped art infrastructure, especially in the shadow of Houston and Dallas, magnifies the significance of Antumbrae Intermedia's impact. They've turned the homegrown experimental scene from inward-facing to becoming recognized and contributing to the greater global stage. Antumbrae's hosted events for Michael Esposito's Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) recordings, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Leif Elggren, and Rowe, with a forthcoming event by American-born, Italy-based audiovisual artist John Duncan.
Whereas sound art performances haven't always blipped the radar of a city obsessed with country, indie rock, and punk, Antumbrae's events have been a rude awakening. Last April, legendary drone composer Phill Niblock screened his series "The Movement of People Working" at the Museum of Human Achievement. Filmed 1973-1991, it depicts labor (primarily without industrialized assistance) across Southeast Asia and Latin America. Live, Niblock's layers of drifting string arrangements are humbling and humanistic exposures of cross-continental post-colonialism and the shared prowess of work and its ethics throughout the developing world. Antumbrae Intermedia deserves credit for the availability of experimentation across diverse backgrounds.
As an artist/organizer in London and New York, where she programmed at La Monte Young's Dream House, Bhattacharya Reed forged a passion for developing avant art events. Outside of Antumbrae, she also helps curate Experimental Response Cinema. The result of her local involvement in the audiovisual arts is the type of events you once had to travel across the country to experience.
For Reed, his wife's become a profound influence. Not merely as a partner, but also as collaborator.
"Before she moved to town [six years ago], a big moving van showed up with a lot of boxes," he recounts. "I started sorting them, and they were all books that were just like my books, but that I didn't have. They were books I would read! She likes a lot of the same things I like, and she's a big inspiration for me.
"When we play as a duo, it's nice to have another voice present. She guides me along and allows me to be more me. She's a genius, and I'm very proud to be married to her."
The work newlyweds Rick Reed and Tara Bhattacharya Reed (they married last year) have put into expanding Austin's experimental scene speaks across generations of local artists. Austin/Los Angeles artist Daniel Hipólito (Smokey Emery) testifies.
"Rick Reed's artistic vision and execution has a remarkable and unhurried focus and poetry," he emails. "His live sound and multimedia performances are constantly evolving, yet grounded in his clear sensibility. A high bar to set and a treat to observe unfold."
Melissa Seely of local avant-garde promoters Church of the Friendly Ghost adds to the chorus.
"Reed has been helping hold down the sound art scene in Austin for a long time," she states. "His works, in combining audio with visual methods, are in recent years being embraced by younger Austin artists. Aware or not of his influence, the next generation of sound art performers reap the benefits of Reed, and others, priming the scene for them."
The soundscapes Reed conjures superimpose against a growing city, searching for something outside of its vanishing self and aching with the pains and ghost limbs of an Austin that no longer exists as compressed with the frustrations of what the city will become. The mechanisms he employs bring the present into focus, even while his tape loops glide by as spirits from our past. Drones of electricity modulating, radio static sifting space, and improvisational synthesis all articulate an immediacy and an allowance to be present.
Or as Reed puts it:
"Keep jousting the windmill."